Race riots met by strike
By Andy Durgan, of Socialist Worker's Spanish sister organisation
IMMIGRANT WORKERS in the south east of Spain won a wide range of improvements in their living conditions, legal status and wage rates after coming out on strike last week. This was their courageous response to three days of attacks in the town of El Ejido, where hundreds of racists went on the rampage beating up immigrants and destroying their property. The "justification" for this violence was the murder of a young woman by a mentally ill Moroccan youth.
What really lay behind it was an explosive mixture of official neglect and widespread poverty. In the last ten years much of the Andalucian province of Almeria, where El Egido is situated, has been transformed by new techniques from a poverty-stricken near desert into one of the country's most prosperous agricultural areas. A handful of landowners and farmers have become very rich. But none of this new wealth would have been possible without the widespread use of cheap immigrant labour, mainly from Morocco.
The immigrant workers are usually paid less than 2 an hour and an estimated 70 percent live in overcrowded shacks, often without running water or electricity, on the outskirts of the town. Many of the 15,000 immigrants who work in El Ejido have paid 500 or more to be smuggled into the country. The authorities have ignored the employment of cheap labour with no labour rights. They do not want to question agribusinesses' huge profits.
The local mayor, on the extreme right of the Conservative People's Party which rules nationally, has systematically blocked attempts to improve the immigrants' conditions or to break the effective apartheid system which exists in the area. In this situation, as in other parts of Europe, fascist and racist elements have managed to pull a section of the population around them. Prior to last week's riot there had been a growing wave of violence directed against the immigrants. Prominent in last week's race riot were members of the mayor's family.
Apart from burning down immigrant-owned shops and houses, the racist mob ransacked the headquarters of anti-racist associations and the Socialist Party's women's organisation. Hundreds of files on immigrants who had gone to these bodies for help were stolen. The initial reaction of the authorities was to give an explicit order to the police not to intervene. Some Tory ministers immediately blamed the lack of tougher immigration laws for the violence. It was only when the local deputy civil governor was beaten up when he visited the town that the government ordered hundreds of riot police into action.
Over half those arrested in the next few days were immigrants who had tried to defend themselves. The imminence of general elections has meant the Spanish Tories rapidly trying to make amends by denouncing racism and promising improvements in the immigrants' conditions.
But it has been the magnificent response of the immigrant workers themselves which has really forced the authorities to change their tune. Despite trying to bring in scab labour to replace the strikers, it was soon clear that the farmers could not carry on. It remains to be seen if the commitments by the bosses and government of better housing and higher pay will become a reality.